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So where does Labour stand on: Education

Agenda 2015 EducationThis is one of a series of posts which focus on the outcome of Labour’s policy review, as agreed by its national policy forum.

Discussing education within the Labour Party is not easy at the best of times. Members are expected to find information where they can. The party provides virtually none, not even in the form of briefing papers. The few educational documents that appear are produced to promote a particular point of view and rarely consider alternatives. This lack of common information makes it difficult to resolve difference through informed debate.

This general difficulty is magnified in a pre-election period when discussing difference comes to be seen as “rocking the boat”. However, unless blind following is sought, party members have the right to know what happened in the most important meeting of the party’s policy-making body. I will try to give a snapshot of what went into and what came out of the education discussion at the July meeting of Labour’s national policy forum (NPF). Did that meeting move educational debate along to a position likely to command general assent or even overwhelming support? These notes are intended to help members, and others, answer his for themselves.

The raw ingredients of the process

The central educational document for the NPF was policy draft Education and Children. There were also background documents pertaining to education and training which, while not formally up for discussion, should have been read. These were (1) the Blunkett Review (Putting students and parents first), (2) the Husbands Review (various documents from Labour’s Skills Taskforce), (3) the section on apprenticeships in the Adonis Review (Stability and Prosperity; Work and Business; Stronger, Safer Communities).

Strictly, the Blunkett Review was more than background material since it covered much of the same ground as the draft, but also made specific proposals which were part of the debate.

The final ingredient was, of course, the amendments submitted (243 of them) to Education and Children by CLPs, affiliated organisations and NPF members.

Inputs and outcomes

Education is a large, complex and controversial topic. The controversies are not only between parties and groups but also within them. There can therefore be no question of covering here the major contending ideas associated with the material discussed. Instead, I shall try and give a feel for the the outcomes of the NPF meeting by selecting a few major themes and looking at the inputs to the process and its outcomes.

Topic 1. The role of local authorities

Education and children contains many references to “local communities”, “local accountability”, “local oversight” etc., but, amazingly, local authorities are not mentioned once. The issue of just where and how all this local power is to be exercised is entirely unclear. It seems possible that this vagueness was intended to allow readers to read into the word “local” whatever interpretation they preferred.

The Blunkett report, on the other hand, leaves no room for doubt. A new post of a statutorily independent Director of School Standards (appointed by each local authority or groups of authorities from a government approved list) would be responsible for the standards in all state-funded schools. The DSS would decide when and where new schools would be needed and would be responsible for commissioning them on the basis of a competative tender. The role of the local authority in all this would be to supply information and express views but the decision would be with the independent DSS.

The submitted amendments express two clear but contrary views. Over forty amendments called for a return of education to a local authority framework. Many of them made explicit that this meant bring all academies and free schools (which are legally academies) back into that framework. The Socialist Education Association expressed the general view clearly:

Education must serve its local communities and must be guided by local knowledge and expertise. To achieve this we do not need to invent any more quangos, instead we want democratically revitalised local authorities to be the hub of educational reform and to be the basis for setting new standards of both educational achievement and democratic involvement.”

Nineteen amendments were written on the assumption that Directors of School Standards were already Party policy, which is not surprising since this had been implied before the NPF meeting in speeches by Tristram Hunt and Ed Miliband. A key passage repeated in most of these amendments was

Decisions over school places should be taken locally with accountability. Local authorities in conjunction with Directors of School Standards will be responsible for overseeing the commissioning of new schools, taking decisions based on the needs of the local area as set out by local authorities.”

Amendments Endorsed is not a completed document but a work in progress. It is the result of discussion on individual amendments and the agreed consensus of what should be kept or rejected from them. (A link cannot be provided for this document since it has not been made available to members. I had to read a copy belonging to a delegate who did not feel free to let me make a copy. The reasons for this secrecy are unclear to me.)

Like Education and children the consensus wording in the Endorsed Ammendments retains the ambiguity of the draft as to what “local” actually means (e.g. are the decisions made by the local authority or by the DSS?). Thus we read:

Labour will ensure equal access to educational opportunity through making sure that every school has a fair admissions policy and will give local areas the powers to direct all schools to admit hard-to-place and vulnerable children.”

The exact nature of this “local area”, in political terms, is not specified. There are many examples of this use of the word “local” in for example “local oversight”, “local support” and so on. Thus, in the amendments which assumed the appointment of a DSS, we find “local support for schools, local oversight and better planning of schools places” which leaves unclear exactly who is going to be doing these things. Does it mean the local authority or the DSS. Is it both and if it is how are the responsibilities divided and which plays the leading part?

There really was no compromise to be had between calls for schools to be returned to a local authority framework and the proposals to put a statutorily independent advisor in charge of regulating, opening and closing schools. Without significantly changing the status and role of the DSS, the only way a consensus could be reached was by backing one proposal and rejecting the other. That is what happened. Is it possible that some of those involved didn’t see it that way and believed that the multiple references to local powers, local support and so on were an effective return of powers to local authorities? If they did think that, then the evidence is that they were misguided. It is the Blunkett solution that emerged in the final Amendments Endorsed.

The reference to local authorities commissioning of schools being a joint decision of local authorities is, I believe, confusing and misleading. That is not what Blunkett proposed. He clearly makes the DSS the commissioning authority). The ambiguity will not be retained in the final policy that goes into the election manifesto for 2015. Given the elimination of the option of local authorities as the middle tier from the original amendments and the positive references to Blunkett in the Amendments Endorsed, it seems reasonable to see the outcome as backing the Blunkett solution.

Polls have shown that the general public favours a return to a local authority framework for schools. The majority of amendments dealing with this issue did too. It seems likely also that the majority of Labour Party members would favour this view. During the course of the NPF weekend a shift took place from a situation of an indication of strong support for local government as the most appropriate middle tier between government and schools to the final consensus in which this viewpoint was absent. Perhaps minds were changed by a more convincing case. Prior to the NPF meeting the only argument used against a return to a local authority framework was “there is no question of going back to local authority control”. It will therefore be interesting to hear if more powerful reasoning was brought to bear on the point in the NPF exchanges. Along with many others, I will be looking and listening for them.

To be continued. 

3 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    I’ve nothing to say once I saw a list of people on an approved Government list that was enough for me..

  2. PoundInYourPocket says:

    So – policy decided by one man. Is that what’s meant by OMOV ?

  3. swatantra says:

    The polls are right. Excellent in depth summary. What the ordinary parent is crying out for is a good local authority neighbourhood school for their kids, and not the hotch potch we have today. The economics of the supermarket should not be applied to Education.

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